We produced this cure infographic to show the different approaches we take to energy conservation, organic farming, and waste recycling here on our agriturismo in Chianti, Podere Patrignone.
When we first came to Italy, some 10 years ago, we knew we had an opportunity that not many people have. Not only did we get to live and work in stunningly beautiful surroundings, but we also have to space and the wherewithal to not just talk about ‘green living’, but to really do something about it. So, we set about hatching a cunning plan with one goal: to become ‘carbon positive’ within 5 years. That’s to say, instead of being net producers of carbon, as nearly everyone is in this day and ago, we wanted to use our space and resources to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
We are lucky to live in a sunny climate, with mostly clear skies, and we have plenty of room. So solar energy was always going to be a great source of clean energy for us. But we wanted to tackle the problem on several fronts:
- Energy: with lots of guests, some of whom take showers, occasionally*, we get through a lot of hot water. It can also very cold here in the winter, and traditionally that meant burning a lot of natural gas. Any energy had to tackle these two problems
- Water: see above. We get through a lot of water, both for guests, and when watering plants. Water can be a scarce resource in the summer, and it’s expensive, both in terms of costs to us and in terms of home much carbon is ‘spent’ producing the water in the first place.
- Waste: our city lives revolved around taking out the rubbish. Bags and bags of it. And even with highly-granular city recycling schemes, it’s still a lot of stuff to throw away. We wanted to minimise or eliminate what we send to landfill, and do as much zero-km recycling as possible.
The Big Budget Projects
We identified our biggest carbon generators, by far, were our consumption of natural gas (for heat and hot water), and electricity, most of which is still produced using fossil fuels. Tackling these problems would be the most expensive, and the harder to plan and execute, especially when dealing with the local bureaucracy. But if we could tackle these problems successfully, then we’d solve 90% of our conservation issues.
The first project, and the most expensive, would be to build a solar farm. We wanted the biggest we could afford, and 20kW was the maximum we could install without becoming a dedicated energy supply company. We didn’t want it to be ugly and obtrusive, so we designed it to act as a covered cark park for guest cars, something we sorely needed anyway. It took 2 years to plan and execute, and nearly failed completely near the end, when a change in the planning laws meant the original design (and planning application!) had to be reworked to make the carport earthquake-proof.
But on the 31st December 2008, literally hours before a vital deadline expired, the guys from the local electricity company arrived in their white van, completed the final connection to the grid, and flicked the big switch to ON.
Since then, the solar farm has generated all the electricity we need, and more. The surplus is sold back to to the electricity company for everyone else to use.
The second project was much more complicated, and went through several design iterations with energy consultants, heating engineers, and suppliers, before we finally decided on a design we could practically implement, and we could afford. Just over 5 years ago, our 50kW ‘biomass’ wood furnace was switched on. It’s a highly efficient boiler, running at around 93% efficiency, burning clean with no smoke, and leaving just a tiny pile of ash.
The wood comes from our own forests. We thin out around half a hectare every winter, leaving enough trees for the forest to regenerate. It takes around 20 years for the process to complete, but with 35Ha of forest, we’ll never ever run out. As the trees grow back, they use the sun’s energy to recapture the carbon we release when we burn the logs, so completing the zero-carbon cycle and meaning our heating and hot water are totally guilt-free.
So, with the exception of the tiny amount of gas we use for cooking, Podere Patrignone is not only completely energy self-sufficient, but it produces an energy surplus that pushes us well into the ‘carbon positive’ bracket.
The smaller stuff, but just as important
The way we handle our waste has also improved year-on-year. Our rubbish bin now gets emptied once every 2 or 3 weeks. Honestly! And even then it’s not usually full, but it’s starting to hum a little. All our food waste goes to the chickens. Well, almost all. The meat does to the dogs. But everything else, the chickens consume with relish and turn into fantastic eggs. Some of the less digestible waste, like banana skins and lemon skins, go into the large compost bins, which produce enough compost for Verity to pot her geraniums in the Spring. Metal, glass, plastic, and paper are all recycled by the local council. We put recycling bins in all the vacation villa rentals here at Podere Patrignone, so even our guests are pretty good at separating their waste.
During the Spring & Summer months, we grow a lot of our own vegetables and salad, all organic. Those we don’t grow ourselves we buy from a local grower that sells us amazing produce (and decent Vin Santo too). The water we need for irrigation comes from huge rain-water tanks that fill up over the winter and last most of the summer.
And, of course, our olive trees have always been, and will always be, 100% organic.
Have we done enough?
Well, not really. It’s never enough, especially with what’s happening elsewhere in the world. But we’re not going to stop. We want our kids to grow up with the right attitude, and we want them to grow up in a world that’s not on the brink of total disaster. We’ll keep trying to do more, and hope that the guests who come to stay with us on our agriturismo take some ideas home with them, so they too can help save the planet, one tiny piece at a time.
* just kidding